By: Cassidy Howard
At the beginning of 2023, I set a singular goal: to finish a bikepacking race. Completion of the 2022 Smoke ‘n’ Fire had eluded me due to a mechanical issue, leaving me with a desire for redemption. With three races penciled into my schedule, I had three opportunities to achieve this goal. I completed most of Pinyons and Pines in May, despite course deviations made necessary by weather and mud. My sense of accomplishment was tempered by the fact that I hadn’t completed the entire course. A few months later, I finally conquered the grueling 430-mile Smoke ‘n’ Fire and felt that my goal had been achieved. However, The Big Lonely still lurked on the calendar. As I stood at the start line of The Big Lonely, a persistent question tugged at my thoughts: What was the force compelling me to willingly endure another 350 miles through the unforgiving expanse of the Oregon high desert? Why was I out here suffering when my goal had already been achieved? These questions accompanied me throughout the entire 350-mile journey.
Day 1 began with a winding singletrack climb from Phil’s trailhead, leading us into the mountains just outside of Bend. Although the route typically followed the Mrazek trail, this year we followed Skyliner to North Fork, treating us to incredible views of Tumalo Falls. Chatting with fellow riders, particularly the women participating in the Pairs/Teams category (as I was the sole solo female rider this year), added to the enjoyment. Upon reaching the summit, we were rewarded with stunning views of the Three Sisters peaks. Next followed a fast descent into Sisters, where I arrived just in time for lunch. I had planned a three-day pace, and although I was on track, it would be close. I made a quick calorie stop at Sno-Cap Burgers while I checked my tracker. I was in the back of the pack, with only a couple of riders behind me. I wasn’t surprised, but it was a strong contrast from the Smoke ‘n’ Fire where I spent the first two days solidly mid-pack. I reminded myself to stay focused on my own ride and keep pedaling.
The route between Sisters and Lake Billy Chinook featured a few missed turns and confusing intersections. I also started experiencing mild nausea, likely from eating too many sour gummy worms. My first real concern emerged in the late afternoon when I realized, to my regret, that I hadn’t filled all of my water bottles in Sisters, and I was running low on water in the afternoon heat. The lake was nearby, but upon arriving, I saw the water was inconveniently distant from the road. Descending to one of the boat ramps would consume time and energy. Just as I contemplated this sacrifice, I stumbled upon a magnificent spring trickling from the mountainside. Relieved, I refilled my bottles and set my sights on Madras. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I was treated to a breathtaking sunset with the Cascades in the background. Despite still feeling slightly ill, I compelled myself to savor the view. I once again asked myself why am I here, but I answered it as I snapped pictures of the mountains, grateful to be experiencing such a beautiful place.
Arriving in Madras as the darkness descended, I was pleased to have reached the 100-mile mark before the end of the day. I was on track with my three-day plan. I laughed off a comment from the Madras Truck Stop attendant, who deemed me “slow” compared to others. I wasn’t out here to compete with anyone but myself. However, after resupplying, I struggled to rekindle my motivation to get back on the bike. It suddenly occurred to me that I’m highly motivated by competition, so I set a new goal: to outpace all the teams and be the first woman to finish. The three teams with fellow women riders had arrived in Madras around the same time, we were all traveling at a similar pace. With this fresh objective in mind, I set off.
I pedaled on towards Ashwood through dark gravel roads surrounded by ranchland. As the night progressed, my nausea returned, and I found it difficult to continue. Although camp spots were few, I managed to stumble upon the perfect roadside alcove—a flat area sheltered by rocks and bushes. It seemed like a sign, so I took a much-needed four-hour rest. Upon resuming my journey, I spotted the Rootin Tootin Cuties not far ahead on the tracker. I convinced myself that I could see their tail lights in the distance, and it fueled my determination to catch up.
I rolled into Ashwood around 5 a.m. and found the much-praised “magic fridge”. The keeper of the fridge was restocking it with ice cream, which wasn’t particularly tempting in the early morning chill. We had a chat, and I pet his dog and picked up a few snacks before continuing on my way. As the sun rose, I caught up with the Cuties, who were just waking up from a nap. They soon pulled ahead, and I lost sight of them as I climbed into the Ochocos. Shortly after I reached the first summit, my nausea resurfaced, making it impossible to eat. My concerns about water had also returned. I was still 50 miles from Prineville, and I had no information about water sources along the way. I lamented my lack of research into the route as my anxiety grew. I began to dig a mental hole, fantasizing about pulling the plug on the race. I questioned my presence here when I was no longer enjoying the experience. Tears welled up as I called my boyfriend, hoping he would validate my desire to quit. I vented my frustrations and wondered why I was subjecting myself to misery. After all, I had already completed the Smoke ‘n’ Fire, so wasn’t that achievement enough for this year? Why was I pushing for more? To my dismay, he wouldn’t even let me contemplate quitting! He insisted that this was the barrier I needed to overcome – this was the moment to conquer. Despite my frustration, I knew he was right. I would deeply regret it if I listened to that inner voice urging me to quit. I summoned the willpower to get back on my bike, and within 15 minutes, I found a flowing mountain spring. It felt like a reward for choosing to persist. I filled all my bottles and immersed body parts in the spring to freshen up. I emerged feeling rejuvenated. This high carried me throughout the afternoon, and I approached the second Ochocos climb with much higher spirits. Before I knew it, I was descending toward Prineville and arrived in town just as the sun was setting.
Prineville marked the last stop before a 150-mile stretch with limited water and no food. I acquired an additional one-liter water bottle, emptied it, and secured it atop my front roll. It would be filled before embarking on the forthcoming lengthy waterless segment. My camp spot for the night was the Big Bend Campground, a strategic choice as it is the final water source before a nearly 100 mile stretch. After another night of slightly under four hours of sleep, I continued onward. I didn’t know if I could finish in three days anymore, but I knew if there was any chance of it, Day 3 would have to be a very big day. I struggled to stay awake through the morning, taking several brief roadside naps. I found myself thinking my helmet made a very comfortable pillow, and I contemplated if this thought made me a true bikepack racer.
After crossing the highway, I embarked on a slightly uphill washboarded gravel road that would occupy most of my day. As the miles accumulated, my hands began to ache. I longed for hike-a-bike to relieve the strain on my hands. That respite didn’t come until the afternoon when I finally began the climb to Paulina Peak. Near the top, I gained cell service and checked the tracker, only to discover that the nearest riders in front of me were on the verge of reaching the finish line at Pilot Butte. Behind me, the two woman duo known as Total Knee for Speed, was about ten miles behind me. It was encouraging to know I wasn’t alone, but I was also motivated to keep a decent lead on them and keep pushing.
Climbing to the summit of Paulina Peak, I witnessed a spectacular sunset with 360-degree views. I felt grateful I made the peak before dark. I hadn’t yet decided whether to camp on the mountain or push on to the finish. I opted not to decide, resolving to just continue moving. I finally got the opportunity to refill my water bottles at Paulina Creek. I thought refilling to my full capacity of 4.5 liters was excessive, given that I was descending and it was nighttime. However, this decision soon became a major regret. As I began the climb back up to the rim, I greedily consumed my water supply. Soon, I had much less than expected, likely a result of being dehydrated throughout the day. At the summit, I paused to consume nearly all of my remaining food. It was approximately 10 p.m. and I reevaluated the choice between camping or continuing. I resolved to keep going and assess how I felt in another hour.
While the initial descending miles went relatively smoothly, my night light setup was subpar, resulting in a slower pace due to decreased visibility and increased fatigue. I encountered an extremely challenging hike-a-bike section, which, while likely short in reality, seemed to stretch on indefinitely. I had barely enough energy to push my bike as I crawled through this section, lying down on the trail more than once. I repeatedly checked my navigation to confirm I was on the correct path. Where was the descent I expected? I only had a few partially eaten cookies left, but I refrained from consuming them, conscious of my limited water supply and afraid they would increase my thirst. Every hour, I assessed whether to sleep or continue. I reminded myself that Bend held the promise of food and water, and I pressed onward. Around 1:30 a.m., I faltered and decided a brief nap might be what I needed. I found a suitable spot on the trail’s edge, leaving my bike in the middle of the trail, and dug out my quilt for warmth. I slept for approximately 30 minutes before resuming my journey. Bend didn’t seem to get any closer and the night seemed to drag indefinitely. It took me roughly 6.5 hours to descend 25 miles of mild single track. I kept coming back to an image of my past self from two years ago, a casual mountain biker who had never ridden more than 30 miles, being in complete disbelief that I spent the whole night descending a mountain in the dark, while being in a sleep- and food-deprived state. Even at that moment, I didn’t understand why I was doing it, but I was still there pushing on.
As I hit pavement, I realized I might actually make my goal of a sub-72-hour finish, which I had almost forgotten about in the vortex of the night. I summoned the last remnants of my strength and made a determined push toward the finish. As I reached the summit of Pilot Butte, I held back tears, realizing I had conquered the mental battle and achieved my goal. It was nearly 6 a.m., exactly 72 hours since I had set out. At the top, I was greeted by my friend Katie, and Jesse, the race director, joined us shortly thereafter. It was a small finishing party as we watched the sun rise, and I processed the immense challenge I had just overcome.
I discovered the answer to the question of “why” as I embraced the sense of accomplishment. Each course presented its unique challenges. This time, the challenge was completing what I had started and upholding my commitment. It was a true test of mental fortitude, and I was elated to have passed it. I tamed the monster of my mind, and I was in control. I overcame challenges I didn’t know were possible and now I can take on anything. I gained a wealth of experience that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t pushed myself this far. Next time I am doing a big adventure and I find myself in the low moments, I’ll remember this experience and I’ll be able to do it again. I’ll remember the feeling of sitting atop Pilot Butte and watching the sunrise and being so proud of what I accomplished. I’m already dreaming about where this new strength will take me.
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